Say it isn't, say it isn't so-o-o...Bookninja George Murray puts himself out to pasture. In related news, my workday just got more productive.
More structured reading
Last year I tried "structured reading" - several books in succession with a unified theme, specifically the Great Depression. That was definitely rewarding, and a week ago, while halfway through Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley Remembers, it occurred to me that I might try it again. Dunne was the biggest satirist around the turn of the 20th Century, with his Mr. Dooley newspaper columns being followed worldwide, influencing not only public opinion but often even government policy. Several times over the course of Dunne's sort-of memoir, he and his son Philip (who edited the collection and added commentary on his father's life) mention the names of Dunne's contemporaries Ring Lardner and George Ade. Dunne, Lardner (best known for his novella You Know Me Al) and Ade (best known for his caustically funny Fables) were arguably the three greatest American satirists of the first half of the 20th Century, and since I also own books by Lardner and Ade, I've decided to read the three books in succession. I'll update here periodically as any meaningful insights occur to me.
Maddie is 10!
I'm with what she said. Eleven years ago, when we first got serious about becoming parents, I really wasn't sure I was ready to be a dad yet. But from the moment Maddie appeared, I've loved being a dad so much that it's impossible to imagine not being one. It's been a wonderful ten years, Monkey, and I'm looking forward to many many more.
Farewell to an icon
The deceased, 1979-2010
Sony to stop making Walkman cassette player
As with all things technological, I was very late to the Walkman game, not getting my first cassette model until around 1990 or so. (Then again, throwback that I am, I still own it.) I suppose a lot of people expressing similar farewells online will go the obvious route and invoke the New York band the Walkmen, but I'll be more obscure with this bit from Yo La Tengo's "Paul Is Dead":
Walking on 10th Street
The guy in front of me
Walkman headphones on, Stones cranked
The thing that caught my ear, singing loud and clear
Every couple of steps I heard, "Woo-woo"
I believe the Stones song in question is "Sympathy for the Devil." Regardless, anyone from that era who remembers those foamy, sound-leaking Walkman headphones will undoubtedly remember this phenomenon well.
The beloved TV actor Tom Bosley has passed away, at 83. Bosley was a boyhood friend of my dad, in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood during the 1930s and 1940s. Though they weren't particularly close (more like friend-of-friend), they still "ran around the neighborhood together" (my dad's words), and one night years ago when the family was watching "Happy Days" my dad suddenly recognized the name as someone he grew up with. A quick check of his old Lake View High School yearbook revealed a grainy photo of a smiling, amiable kid - picture Howard Cunningham, but skinny and thirty years younger. After that my dad always followed Bosley's career, from "Happy Days" to "Murder She Wrote" and "Father Dowling Mysteries", always finding amusement in his portrayal of the Catholic priest Father Dowling - Bosley was Jewish. Farewell, good man. If somehow there's a heaven, Abe is waiting for you.
"...my notion of hell is having to outlive my friends..."
"It's not all that tragic (his diagnosis of terminal cancer)...I'm sixty-eight and I'm already tired of being an old man. Let me tell you something about old age. When you're sixty, all sorts of pleasant things happen to you. Pretty girls fight for the privilege of sitting at your feet, of filling your glass and lighting your cigarette. Callow youth can't compete with you. But when you get closer to seventy, they begin to avoid you. You can see them thinking: is that old bastard still around? Old age is a disease like other infirmities and people are afraid they'll catch it from you. Besides, my notion of hell is having to outlive my friends, and mine are going fast. And that's why I have no desire to reach seventy."
- Finley Peter Dunne, from Mr. Dooley Remembers (1963)
Listening: Giant Sand
Giant Sand: "Fields of Green"
Terrific return to form from Howe Gelb's Giant Sand, from the forthcoming Blurry Blue Mountain on Fire Records. Gelb ponders aging and losing one's heroes to shuffling, subdued instrumentation. Giant Sand was one of my favorite bands during the early 1990s, when I was mesmerized by the albums Giant Sandwich, Long Stem Rant and Swerve, but though I loved loved loved the first three songs on 1994's Glum, I was sorely disappointed that the rest of the album deteriorated into aimless self-indulgence. Then after Joey Burns and John Convertino - one of the best rhythm sections around - left the band to make Calexico their full-time gig, I mostly lost track of Giant Sand. But "Fields of Green" has suddenly revived my interest, and I'll probably be reacquainting myself with Gelb's eccentric vision very soon.
Studs Terkel, Working
Studs Terkel's Working is a truly great book, and worthy of the many accolades it has received over the years. Simply put, the book is an oral history of Americans telling of their jobs - both the specific responsibilities involved and the meaning derived from work. The book, first published in 1974, came at a critical time - shortly after the social upheaval of the tumultuous 1960s - when people increasingly questioned their place in society and particularly the long-ingrained American work ethic. After reading the book, my impression is that the majority of workers therein were disatisfied with their jobs, seeing themselves as faceless cogs in corporate and government machines, and often powerless to make a change. But many also loved their jobs and relished going to work every day, which gave the book a much-needed balance.
Since my own words can't possibly do justice to the voices of Working's narrators, I encourage everyone to at least read the various excerpts I've been posting here during the past two years. If those excerpts move you even a tiny bit, then you absolutely must read this great book, the crowning achievement of Terkel's incomparable career.
Chi Lit HoF
The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame has announced its first class of inductees: Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, Studs Terkel and Richard Wright.
This dovetails pretty well with my own choices, with two exceptions: they chose Wright and Hansberry, while I chose Mike Royko and Carl Sandburg. Sure, Native Son is one of the greatest Chicago novels and Wright deserves inclusion here, but I don't think he wrote enough about Chicago or lived here long enough to be in the inaugural class. I can't speak to Hansberry's merits, as I've never read anything of hers. But Royko and Sandburg lived, breathed and wrote the city, with Royko (along with Algren and Stuart Dybek) being almost the epitome of the quintessential Chicago writer. Eh, wait 'til next year.
Seven highlights of our week at Hilton Head
Kenny's B's French Quarter Cafe. Awesome cajun food.
Hilton Head Castle, by the acclaimed design firm of Maddie & Associates.
The relocated and expanded Java Joe's.
Dinner at Roastfish & Cornbread.
Mr. K's Used Books, in Asheville, NC. (Stock photo from the store's website; we have no idea who this woman is.)
Just being us.
The final passage in Working presents Tom Patrick, a New York City fireman.
Last month there was a second alarm. I was off duty. I ran over there. I'm a bystander. I see these firemen on the roof, with the smoke pouring out around them, and the flames, and they go in. It fascinated me. Jesus Christ, that's what I do! I was fascinated by the peoples' faces. You could see the pride that they were seein'. The fuckin' world's so fucked up, the country's fucked up. But the firemen, you actually see them produce. You see them put out a fire. You see them come out with babies in their hands. You see them give mouth-to-mouth when a guy's dying. You can't get around that shit. That's real. To me, that's what I want to be.
I worked in a bank. You know, it's just paper. It's not real. Nine to five and it's shit. You're lookin' at numbers. But I can look back and say, "I helped put out a fire. I helped save somebody." It shows something I did on this earth.
Despite his sober realization of the extreme dangers that firemen face, including their diminished life expectancy, Patrick sees great societal and especially personal value in a fireman's work. He truly feels he's making a difference. Lucky man.
Perhaps the most interesting section of Studs Terkel's Working is the final one, called "Fathers and Sons", which presents not only each worker's reflections on his own job, but also on his father's job or his son's. Thus this section not only included the steelworker Steve Dubi, but also his son, Father Leonard Dubi, who abandoned blue-collar work (with the strong encouragement of his father, who never found fulfillment in his work) in favor of the priesthood.
When I got out to St. Daniel's three years ago, I had an agenda for myself. I was trained in a very liberal seminary. I saw social action issues - war and peace and poverty. I spent my deacon years - before I was ordained - at Catholic Charities. It was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. I was a fisherman pulling people out of troubled waters. Trying to bring them back to life with artificial respiration and Band-Aids. Then I'd put them back on the other side of the river into the same society that pushed them in. I knew I'd have to do more than just be a social worker and patch up people.
So instead of handing out charitable aid, Father Dubi became an activist priest - fighting against Mayor Daley the First and the Crosstown Expressway, which would have destroyed thousands of working class homes, and against corporate giants U.S. Steel (ironically, his father's employer) and Commonwealth Edison for their noxious pollution that was poisoning thousands of people. In doing so, he undoubtedly improved the lives of countless more people than he ever could have otherwise. Father Dubi is still active, and is currently serving at St. Victor's in Calumet City.
Summer of Classics 2010
Since it's now October, I suppose I should finally post my final thoughts on my Summer of Classics reading. Actually, this post isn't as late as you might think - I only finished my reading last week. So here's what I read.
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
Achebe's widely acclaimed novel is an interesting study of an African tribe as it struggles to maintain traditions despite the relentless pull of modernity and progress. That said, however, I never really engaged with the characters, partly due to the flat and lean prose, and that more than anything left me underwhelmed.
Stendhal, The Red and the Black
I had high hopes for this book after learning of its reputation beforehand, and especially after the first few pages, when we meet the protagonist, Julien Sorel, a sensitive young man who is totally out of place with his working-class family. Promising start, but as Julien establishes himself in the world, he steadily becomes an ambitious, conniving, insufferable bore, and what I thought would be a book about political/social protest, it instead turned out to be an unforgivably overwrought romance novel. How not one, but two high-standing women could possibly swoon over him made very little sense to me. And though the political and social aspects of the novel might have made perfect sense to a reader in, say, 1835 (the book was published in 1830), most of those aspects went way over my head. Frankly, I couldn't wait for this book to end.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Another exhausting book, but exhausting in a good way. Whitman's verse sings a passionate love song to America, its citizens and, yes, himself. Fascinating ideas and gorgeous lyricism. And also physically draining to read - while marvelously written, it's also very long-winded and repetitive, with Whitman returning to the same themes again and again. I had to set the book aside after 100 pages and move on to something else. But I know I'll resume reading it again soon.
Seamus Heaney (translator), Beowulf
I've read numerous prose translations of this great epic poem over the years, but never read it in verse. Heaney's translation is a very modern one that breaks from the traditional stanza structure toward longer, flowing lines, and that makes this a very smooth and enjoyable read. However, Heaney's treatment makes me now want to try a more traditional verse translation, one which is more faithful to the original structure. I already know the story well enough that a more archaic style won't make it prohibitively difficult to read.
O.E. Rölvaag: Giants in the Earth
You might think a pioneer epic about Norwegian settlement in 1870s South Dakota would make for very dry reading, but this great book is anything but that. It's greatness is partly due to the vividness of Rölvaag's prose, particularly when he so perfectly describes the prairie during cultivation and harvest, or the terrifying danger of a lethal blizzard. But despite being a pioneer epic, what this book is really all about is a relationship - the once-warm and thriving but now distant and bitter marriage of Per and Beret Hansa. They don't connect and barely communicate, and their lives steadily grow apart - as apart as a husband and wife (plus four children) can possibly be in a two-room sod hut. As Per hungers for adventure and material success, Beret feels trapped on the desolate prairie, bound by her maternal duties and having only her religious faith (which Per does not share) as respite. Giants in the Earth is an unforgettable portrait of high-flown dreams and bitter reality, and one that I can't recommend highly enough.
Pub for sale, affordable price, inconvenient location
Ah, to be independently wealthy. The Old Forge, Britain's most remote pub ("reachable only by an 18-mile hike through tumbling Scottish wilderness, or a buffeting seven-mile boat trip from Mallaig") is up for sale.
"I've decided to stop pouring pints and start drinking them," says Jackie Robertson who, with her husband Ian, owns the place. It's on sale for offers over £790,000 but cash alone won't guarantee a sale. "We won't be selling to anyone who won't keep its spirit alive," says Jackie. "All the interested parties have been customers. They understand the culture of the place: good food, good music, good people."
And I'm guessing that not only does everybody know your name, but also most of your personal history, in embarrassingly fine detail.